Chile’s China syndrome

Chineseness in Chile: Shifting Representations During the Twenty-First Century, Maria Montt Strabucchi, Carol Chan and María Elvira Ríos, 2022, Palgrave

It’s a good time to consider the Chinese presence in Latin America, because if our turbulent era is defined by anything at all it is an end to old certainties.

The era of uncontested US hegemony in Latin America is well and truly over, and the region is redefining its relationship with the world in dynamic ways that have yet to be explored.

The presence of ethnic communities derived from immigration and how they impact “national identity” is just one of the factors influencing this redefinition, and no less or more important than others.

But the world has reached a turning point in which the great powers of old are being challenged externally and from within, and a superpower with the potential to exceed the US in global influence is emerging in plain sight.

China’s ascent is without question—and without precedence. Its stake, and hence profile, in Latin America has grown accordingly. It has rapidly become South America’s top trading partner and a vast well of both foreign direct investment and lending in energy and infrastructure—raising visible hackles in Washington. There is also no doubt that Beijing is leveraging its economic power in the region to further its strategic goals, and using invocations to so-called “South-South cooperation” and soft power through cultural and educational ties in order to build goodwill and present itself as a rival bet to the US.

That is not to say that Chilean identity has been shaped overwhelmingly by US hegemony, nor to exaggerate the Chinese presence in the country, but it does put such questions into greater relief. As the authors of this book point out, representations and prejudiced ideas about the Chinese and Chineseness in Chile are clearly influenced by and similar to relevant discourses in the US, while also being shaped by Chileans’ own ambivalent and conflicting positions and relations to the US itself.

Moreover, race represents something of a blind spot in Chile, dismissed as only of relevance to other countries, making this study important in its own right, and enlightening for it. While this work predictably identifies representations of the Chinese in the Chilean cultural and media landscape as mostly racist, xenophobic, and sexist, it also identifies discourses that consider Chineseness in terms of inclusion and openness.

What we are witnessing, in fact, over and above the question of the Chinese presence in Chile, is something far more radical: the intellectual deconstruction of the national idea that has been the imagined firmament upon which Latin American state-building has hitherto been built. Chilean elites, as in the US and Europe, have aspired to define the nation as modern, civilised, and rational by rejecting what they define as primitive, backward, and irrational. Hitherto, ethnic Chinese have mostly been perceived and portrayed as embodying these latter qualities.

Importantly, this book does not dwell on history. It focuses on cultural representations of the Chinese in Chile since the 1980s in keeping with the PRC’s global opening. Notably, it finds that while China’s growth reinvigorated stereotypical racist fears about the “yellow peril”, it simultaneously introduced positive images of an economic partner which can provide new opportunities that normalise the presence of Chinese products and elements in domestic life.

Ultimately, the authors suggest, conceptions of China and the Chinese remain linked to ideas about Chilean national identity—as expected, they tell us more about Chile than they do about China.

This is a fascinating book for anyone interested in national identity, resonating with those more familiar with countries where anti-Chinese sentiment formed a backdrop to momentous narrative-building events of modern nationalism. In Mexico, for example, the notorious Torreón massacre in 1911 by the revolutionary forces of Francisco Madero, in which more than 300 Asian Mexicans were slaughtered, stands as a stark reminder of the potential consequences of tropes.

It is fitting, therefore, that the authors of this bookhave employed the case of contemporary Chile to demonstrate how representations continue today to have real consequences not only for ethnic Chinese people but also for diplomatic relations between countries.

This review can be read on Substack.